Philip Marsden stops by Travel Writing World again to answer a few questions about his career as a travel writer. He is the author of several travel books, including his most recent book The Summer Isles.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I didn’t set out to write a travel book. My incentive to write my first book came from my own burning response to a particular place and subject – Ethiopia. I first went there when I was 20. I’d never been out of Europe before and it opened my eyes to the world. At that time, during the dark days of Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime, few people were going there. I managed to travel out to Lake Tana, and spend a couple of weeks trekking round the lake and visiting its islands. When I returned to the UK, I found that all sorts of people – exiles and scholars – wanted to hear about it. That was my introduction to how journeys can be used as living stories, and that the returning traveler can have something to offer – even a gawky twenty-year-old.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I was working with a literary agent on another project and one day I started gabbling about my enthusiasm for Ethiopia, and he said – why not put it down in a book proposal. It was a fortunate time – the late 1980s, when publishers were generous and travel books were all the rage.
What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?
Notebooks on the road, scribbled-down observations and recorded conversations, musings, and details. Anything and everything. Combined with research, all that stuff feeds on to the page back in my writing shed. I have notebooks too full of book-harvested facts and ideas and threads. A lot of research questions are pursued after the journey when it’s given shape to stories. That’s where the real work takes place, back home, converting haphazard events on the road into narrative. And that’s where the real joy lies for me – the strange chemistry of combining stories with language and watching something new emerge, something alive. The whole thing can take a few years, though in truth most books have been gestating unseen for years and years.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
Too many to list.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Read, read, read – follow your nose, be hyper-alert to what appeals to you. Just do it.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
As the years pass, and I’ve had the chance to try my hand at other forms, I’ve become more and more convinced of the mysterious force of the journey as a basis for story-telling. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out why that should be – life as a journey, the receptive eyes of the stranger, etc. – but it’s better just to enjoy it. It’s a malleable form too. It can be used as a vehicle for history, adventure, ethnography. Many novels are journeys too. The journey is an abstract of our own passage through the years. We seem hard-wired for understanding the world by moving through it.
Why write about travel?
If you enjoyed this interview with Philip Marsden, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.